Friday, March 23, 2012

April Fools

Hello good readers and welcome to a special edition of At the Scene of the Crime! Today, I’d like to welcome back Sergio, who holds the current record for most appearances on this blog (this is his third appearance). When I asked Sergio if he was interested in a crossover review to commemorate my one-year anniversary, he was enthusiastic about the idea. But what to review?

Well, to come up with an idea, I looked back at our previous two collaborations. In our first, we read and discussed George Baxt’s The Alfred Hitchcock Murder Case. I had written Baxt off as a hack after reading The Affair at Royalties, but Sergio’s enthusiastic review of A Queer Kind of Death piqued my interest, and that led to a re-evaluation of Baxt from my part. When Sergio dropped in for a second time, we discussed Julian Symons and his book Bloody Murder, holding a long debate about its merits and flaws. In both cases, Sergio helped to broaden my mystery horizons as I learned to appreciate something I’d earlier dismissed.

So how could we keep this tradition going? Well, I started thinking: Sergio has been reading and reviewing the work of Ed McBain, specifically his 87th Precinct novels. I had never read a McBain novel before, but I distinctly remember coming across some of his novels in a box of books once. I deliberately ignored them, allowing them to be given away. Naturally, I had to atone for my sins somehow (especially due to my Catholicism). Suddenly, the idea dawned on me: I was far more familiar with Craig Rice, Sergio was the man to see about Ed McBain. What better place to begin acquainting myself with McBain than the novel he finished for Craig Rice, The April Robin Murders?

Sergio, thanks for joining me today!

***


Buon giorno Patrick, thanks very much for the invite, it's great to be back.

Having only read a little of Rice's output (and all of that either in Italian translation or in the form of shorter works largely written by Stuart Palmer), I leaped at the chance start in earnest on an appreciation of her work, especially after your various posts about her life and work. This seemed like a really excellent way to continue or own 'collaboration'.

While some uncertainty, nay mystery, seems to remain about the attribution of some of Rice's work, the case of The April Robin Murders seems fairly straightforward - or is it? What we know is that it was an unfinished manuscript featuring Bingo Riggs and Handsome Kusak, a belated return to of her characters from 1940s. Does this mean that it was a story started then but set aside? Either way it way it was still unfinished by the time of Rice's early death in 1957 and the manuscript was eventually completed by Ed McBain (aka Evan Hunter), one of the many authors Rice would have known from the Scott Meredith Agency in the 50s. Is it possible to tell the join? How much is Rice’s and how much McBain's - and does it matter?

It is Hollywood circa 1958 and Bingo and Riggs have left New York with a bundle of money and are now living their idea of the good life - but there is swampland for sale not far from their swimming pool ...

***

Bingo Riggs and Handsome Kusak (a pair of photographers who form the International Foto, Motion Picture and Television Corporation of America) are in their third and final adventure. Upon arrival in Hollywood, they meet a man named Courtney Budlong, who offers to take them on a tour of the place. They eagerly accept, and before long, he offers to show them the inside of the April Robin mansion, which he is selling. They are awed by the place and instantly decide to buy it. But things quickly go wrong. The caretaker who came with the house is found nearly dead from exposure to lethal carbon tetrachloride—she had apparently been cleaning the carpet, got woozy, fell over and tipped the can. Yet the room was conveniently shut tight and sealed, ensuring that the toxic fumes wouldn’t dissipate throughout the house. Coincidence?

Before long, Bingo and Handsome find themselves in the centre of an old murder case; the previous owner of the house disappeared a few years ago, apparently murdered by his wife (who also has disappeared). The police are interested in the case once again after the caretaker’s “accident”. All the while, Bingo and Handsome face slowly dropping funds and must fight tooth-and-nail for every cent so that they may look presentable to their far-more-famous neighbours, including a society widow and a movie producer!

Craig Rice was working on this book—or rather, a third instalment in the Bingo/Handsome trilogy—for many years, according to Jeffrey Marks’ biography, Who Was That Lady? The Monday Mongoose Murders was one of the many books Craig Rice planned but never actually wrote. Alcoholism really destroyed a promising career, and when she tragically died after falling down the stairs, she left behind an unfinished manuscript for The April Robin Murders.

Not wanting another The Mystery of Edwin Drood on their hands, the publisher hired Hunter to finish writing the book. The fact that he was able to do so is in itself miraculous. Craig Rice never kept any notes and didn’t plan her plots out in advance on paper. But he did it, and the result is not merely acceptable but truly wonderful. I personally could never tell when Craig Rice stopped and when Hunter took over. Hunter himself, when asked, found it difficult, and according to Jeffrey Marks, estimated around the 126 page mark, although he wouldn’t swear to a particular page or chapter.

***

Whatever 'page 126' may in fact mean - it depends on your edition after all! You really can't see the join, though to get any negatives out of the way at an early stage (hate when a positive review ends on a downer, don't you?), the conclusion does feel remarkably swift - not abrupt necessarily, but the whole story and climax all take place in just a few pages, which does contrast with the much slower introduction to the story. This also means that several supporting characters, including the two investigating cops, do pretty much just vanish from the narrative. The ending is however perfectly adequate and one would assume that Hunter/McBain may have gone back and tweaked elements in the introductory pages, assuming these are Rice's, to make it all fit at the end.

The plot is a variation on the old dark house / 'Cat and the Canary' scenario, with our duo (who could easily have been played by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in a 50s movie adaptation) getting conned into buying the huge mansion that holds a nefarious secret (or two). Built by famous silent movie starlet April Robin - who died in a car crash around the period of the change from silent to sound cinema as depicted in the current hit movie The Artist - since then it had been bought by Julien Lattimer both he and then his young wife Lois went missing and the police assume very foul play. I thought the book was very successful in dangling these parallel mysteries around Robin (Handsome, despite his photographic memory, can't remember anything about Robin and no one wants to tell the sad story surrounding her death) and the Lattimers and Hunter glues the two together pretty convincingly (with the accent on humour). Or as the cops put it at one point:

"This is Hollywood. Everybody's got to have some foibles"

Structurally I think it works very nicely in the screwball dimension, with lots of comic characters introduced at top speed - half the time you are dreading the next con which will see the boy's stake dwindle even further, but on the other hand they are frequently the architects of their own misfortune as they keep taking some very bad or expensive advice. And yet it is highly satisfying that the kinship between the two friends is never truly shaken - which is very sweet. Which is to say, for its myriad of characters and humorous situations and for the perfectly decent plot, it's Rice's two protagonists that come through the best.

***

I agree that the ending does feel somewhat rushed, but then again, much of the book is in that frantic pace. It does take a while for the gravity of the plot to build up, but there are a lot of confusions along the way that seem minor at first, such as the question about the signature. At first there’s a simple explanation for it, but soon the police find out that the simple explanation is impossible, which only manages to make the entire problem more complex. (I’m being purposely vague there, but you know what I mean of course.)

I like how Craig Rice uses her Hollywood setting to poke fun at the film industry and the glamour of Hollywood. Bingo and Handsome’s new next-door neighbour is the famous film producer, Rex Strober, an unfriendly type who does his best to shun the company of others. Their other neighbour is a rich society widow, Mrs. Waldo Hibbing, who is eager to know if they’ve stumbled over Julien Lattimer’s corpse yet. But there’s also the character of Leo Henkin, a big agent whose native tongue seems to be Bravado:

“If you’re looking for talent,” he said, “if you’re looking for stories, if you’re looking for new faces or old faces, Leo Henkin can help you. … Leo Henkin knows everybody and everything that goes on.”

Unlike many of Rice’s books, The April Robin Murders is not thoroughly alcohol-sozzled, but it is quite a funny book nonetheless. It’s odd how Craig succeeded in comedy so well when her own life was full of personal tragedy. The April Robin Murders is no exception, but it surprises me particularly in this case because of the date this book was written, i.e. late in her career. She had lived through a turbulent period, and her alcoholism didn’t help. Not only did she get through a vitriolic and very public divorce with Larry Lipton, she later got married to a violent schizophrenic who threatened her life when she attempted to leave. And even though she converted to Catholicism (that’s right, we’ve snatched up another mystery writer to claim as our own!) the alcohol abuse continued.

***

Given that Rice had by the time of her death published practically no novels since the late 1940s, is it possible that this was in fact an old manuscript dusted down when she was in dire financial straits at the end of her life? Either way, as much fun as it is to speculate (what does Jeffrey Marks say?), there is much to enjoy here and lots of amusing dialogue too - I like a lot of the flatly comic dialogue and the self-deprecating tone of the descriptive passages too. I actually thought more would be made of the role of the copy Perroni and Hendenfelder as their exchanges always made me smile - for instance:

Bingo: "You don't think I'd lie to the police do you?"
"Yes," Perroni said, and settled that question once and for all.

Craig Rice
That the characterisation and dovetailing of the plot are so well done is important to emphasise because the basics of the plot are along very established screwball lines: two partners arrive from back east to make their fortune in Tinseltown, get mixed up with movie folk and criminals, spend the night in a haunted house and solve a murder or three. This might not, per se, entice many readers, but it really is very entertaining from beginning to end - and thankfully has not dull spots either. And a happy ending too!

As my first experience in English of a full-length work by Rice (subject to McBain caveats of course) I have to say I consider this to be a complete success. It's funny and sweet and tells a good story with an amusing surprise at the end that makes a lot of the plot hints finally pay off - what more could you want? I do think that Hunter's role was probably pretty significant and the procedural elements towards the end in unraveling the story (I'm thinking of the visit to the grave and the interviews with the suspects which are pretty much all dialogue) do feel a lot like McBain to be honest, though you'll have to tell me if this is a fair assessment, though it never feels like it breaches itself stylistically. How does it compare with other Rice novels you have read?

***

I think it’s very unlikely that this was an old novel lying around. Rice’s spending habits were notorious and I think that the book would have seen the light of day far earlier if this had been the case. Furthermore, after her death, someone claimed to have discovered an unpublished Rice manuscript, but the book seems to have been written by just about anyone except Craig Rice. No, I think it’s safe to say that this was in the process of being written when Rice died.

Stylistically, I never thought this book became distinct from Craig’s work. If I hadn’t known, I would never have guessed this was a collaborative effort. But let’s keep in mind that Craig Rice herself was a remarkable writer who could change her style quite readily, so it isn’t a stretch to imagine that she was capable of writing the finale with its procedural-like elements. She wrote some very serious works under the penname Michael Venning, for instance, which are apparently the polar opposite of her John J. Malone novels! Home Sweet Homicide is a very sweet book written from the perspective of three children, and although there’s none of the alcohol of Rice’s other works, it manages to be every bit as manic and funny. In fact, two of her books are on the prestigious Haycraft Queen Cornerstone list: Trial by Fury and Home Sweet Homicide.

Evan Hunter (Ed McBain)
I liked the cops in this novel, and cops in general are often fun characters in the World According to Rice. The John J. Malone books have the recurring figure of Von Flanagan, for instance, a cop who added the “von” to his name so people wouldn’t think to themselves “another Irish cop”. Von Flanagan tends to muse about what he’d like to do apart from police-work; in The Corpse Steps Out, for instance, he wants to buy a mink farm.

In The April Robin Murders, we have two very different cops as partners. The first is Perroni, a man determined to find out just what happened to Julien Lattimer, and he isn’t going to give up any time soon. His job is to suspect anyone and everyone, and he’s on the Lattimer case 24/7 until he solves it. His exchanges with Bingo and Handsome, who are desperately trying to hide the fact that they’re practically broke, are wonderful: he knows they’re hiding something and wants to ferret it out, but it’s irrelevant to the case and will only harm their reputation, which is why they’re equally desperate to hide it!

Perroni’s partner is Hendenfelder, a guy who’s in awe that these two gentlemen have purchased a house belonging to the April Robin, and asking them if they could find some souvenir for his niece (who’s a fan of hers). They finally offer to take his picture in April Robin’s garden, an offer that he considers just swell. His interactions with Bingo and Handsome are on a very different level: he essentially becomes a co-conspirator from within the police force. This makes his interactions with his partner only the more interesting.

But that being said, yes, it is a pity we didn’t see more of them around. They’re such fun that I felt like I could never get enough. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with them or their presence in the book as is; but like the best of books, The April Robin Murders leaves you hungering for more of these characters. Although there isn’t more to be found of Perroni and Hendenfelder, there are two other Bingo/Handsome novels, The Sunday Pidgeon Murders (now available inexpensively for the Kindle) and The Thursday Turkey Murders (which ought to be made available for the Kindle soon).

***

This was the perfect book for us to review as a collaboration, but in fact the book doesn't particularly benefit from it - it's clear Hunter was very respectful in the work that he had to do to finish it and it works, in essence, as a valedictory to her work and her passing. I sometimes wondered if the hard drinking first Mrs Lattimer was a sly portrait of Rice herself, but this was the only place where I thought that maybe the book was winking at the reader in that way.

Collaborations don't have to be about conflict or filling in the blanks - this seems to me to be a case where we are in pretty harmonious agreement about the virtues of the book, the literary tradition it comes from, and the respect due to Rice in general.

I give it four stars out of five and I really don't do that very often at all!

Sergio's Rating:
***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

***

I have to agree— in our previous collaborations, there was always some point of discussion, something we completely disagreed about. But I think it’s pretty clear we both enjoyed this book tremendously! It’s a fine book— crimes from the past resurface with vengeance in the modern day and our heroes struggle to stay afloat. And after all’s been said and done, Hunter allows the series to end on a high, positive note. After all Bingo and Handsome got through, they deserve it! Out of four stars, I’d have to give this book four.

 Patrick's Rating: 4/4 stars

Sergio, once again, I thank you for joining me here today!

4 comments:

  1. Well, I think we solved this case very harmoniously! Cheers Patrick, that was a real lark.

    ReplyDelete
  2. You mention that The Sunday Pigeon Murders is available cheap. In fact, it's free (always my favorite price) at Manybooks, along with The Lucky Stiff:
    http://manybooks.net/authors/ricec.html

    Crime on My Hands, by 'George Sanders', is also free, although now I can't remember where I found it.

    Presumably these three fell out of copyright.

    I haven't yet read Sunday Pigeon, but the other two are both fun, and I'm looking forward to meeting Bingo and Handsome.

    ReplyDelete
  3. What a long, detailed collaborative review! Bravo!

    I read this book in my teens as a selection of the Dollar Mystery Book Club, and of course at the time, I knew nothing about either Craig Rice or Ed McBain, but I remember thinking the book was terrific, and so I picked up books by both authors when I saw them from that time on, particularly Rice, whose novels have hardly ever disappointed me.

    McBain I've always admired, but not being a fan of police procedurals, I never read a lot of his work.

    I'll have to read this one again. You brought back a lot of memories. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  4. You knew I'd chime in! Great column. I enjoyed it.

    ReplyDelete

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